Steve Feldmann and Marie Feldmannova decided to move their bohemian cafe from Lynn to Salem in 2007, they never dreamed it would receive the huge response it did. “It just got so big and so popular,” says Steve. “It was definitely not what we expected right out of the gate.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that Gulu-Gulu Cafe, at the busy corner of Essex and Washington Streets, helped transform Salem’s downtown to the restaurant mecca it is today. Based on the Prague cafe where the 40-something couple first met, the place is perpetually packed full of Salem businesspeople, tourists from around the world, hipsters, beer lovers, and musicians and artists. Wednesday open mic nights draw many a musician, guitar case strapped to their back, as well as a line of listeners that snakes around the corner.
A queue formed down Lafayette Street this past summer when Feldmann opened Smokin’ Betty’s BBQ + Bar, taking over the old space that once occupied Strega, the velvety, dimly lit Italian restaurant and lounge. The new atmosphere runs in the opposite direction, with a light decor, olive-green picnic tables, signs that read BBQ AND FUN, and a bar made of an old bowling lane. In addition to a bowling alley, in the last 100 years, the building housed a ballroom, a French Canadian social club, and a pool hall.
Americana whimsy now fills the walls, featuring the work of Dan Blakeslee, Mark Reusch, and Greg Orfanos, the artist responsible for the look and feel of Gulu and its iconic logo featuring Steve and Marie’s Boston terrier. On one wall, a gentle-looking grizzly bear plays guitar in a field at the base of a mountain. Rising behind him is the typical roadside billboard, created by local artist Lucas Custer, with the black-and-white silhouette of Smokin’ Betty.
Betty—as in Don and Betty Draper, Betty Crocker, middle America, a 1950s throwback name. “That’s my mom. They’re all my mom,” Feldmann says, gesturing about the room to beautiful black-and-white images of his young mother, Elizabeth “Betty” Feldmann, in various playful pinup poses with a movie star–beautiful face. Going through family photos with his mother shortly before she died in 2012 at the age of 81, Feldmann exclaimed, “Mom, you were such a hottie. You were smokin’!”
Smokin’ also takes place in the back, in a large Southern Pride smoker where the meat slow cooks for hours and hours, flavored from a mix of maple and beech wood neatly stacked near the bar. The brisket alone gets the 10-hour treatment. This Southern transplant has tried the chicken, the ribs, and the brisket—all excellent. And you don’t have to choose whether you want Memphis, Kansas City, or Carolina BBQ. Sauces from all regions known for their slow-cooked meats are available on the table to sample. Sides of corn on the cob, black-eyed peas, and collard greens evoke places like Austin, Texas, former home of a recent hungry customer looking for something familiar. The small bite menu’s Gruyere beignets intrigue; or, to go big, try the Meat Tornado that feeds six.
“I wanted to serve BBQ, and chef Todd wanted to cook it,” says Feldmann of Todd Bekesha, who spent a decade in New Orleans kitchens and most recently created the North Shore pop-up Po’ Boys and Pies. (A fried green tomato po’ boy is on the menu.) Feldmann knows how to find good people. He employs up to 150 of them in his three restaurants in high season, creating jobs for students, young artists, and tattooed, bearded cool folks. In her Metallica T-shirt, a sassy server talks about teaching an upcoming Metal Yoga class later this month at the Peabody Essex Museum. Then there are bartenders Pat Seaberg and Andrew Smith, veterans from Feldmann’s other establishments, who don’t mess around—the frothy margarita is heavy on the lime and light on sugary sweet. This is how grown people drink. The Tom Cat Gin Julep transports drinkers to another latitude, and there’s always the simple Pickleback, a shot of Evan Williams with a shot of pickle juice. The bar slings pints from taps topped with tough daggers and knives. Bottled Lawnmower Beers are the perfect drink to accompany BBQ, the kind of beer Dad might have mowed the lawn while sipping in the 1950s—Pabst, Schlitz, and Miller High Life.
Flying Saucer Pizza Company opened in 2012. “That one was for me,” says Feldmann, referring to the sci-fi theme. A slice, local pints, and nerding out with the bartenders to Doctor Who or Weird Science playing over the bar are the simple ingredients to a quiet evening. Here a meaty pizza is named Space Invaders and Pluto is a burrata plate. This place is so much a nerd-vana that translation may be necessary from a video game aficionado/comic book collector/Trekkie
Edgy but friendly has long been the name of the game in the Feldmann restaurant world. Simply opening on Lafayette Street in the mostly Dominican Point neighborhood was a rebel move—another one, since the busy corner where Gulu sits was once a no-go zone for families and is now an epicenter of boutiques and restaurants aplenty. The front windows of Smokin’ Betty’s roll open, welcoming the neighbors to join in the fun. During the build-out, passersby gave some enthusiastic thumbs up, happy to see the cool downtown coming their way. “The neighborhood is urban, get over it,” says Feldmann. Adding to the edge is an unused alley filled with tables for outdoor seating.
“I’m not just part of it,” Feldmann says, referring to Salem’s restaurant scene. “I love to go out and eat. This town has fun, creative places with amazing food.” With a sophisticated palette that defies her age, the couple’s five-year-old entertains them with her own navigation of Salem’s foodie scene.
The sweet spot, the winning the recipe for a cool place—Feldmann seems to have it down. Will he stop with three or open another? Every five years he seems to need to scratch that itch, says Smokin’ Betty’s manager Erin Oliver. If that’s true, look around Salem for the next frontier…because Feldmann already has.
94 Lafayette Street, Salem.